On The Age of the Unthinkable

Some of what journalist Joshua Cooper Ramo seems to be suggesting in his book The Age of the Unthinkable is already happening at a local level. Inspired by the science of social-ecological resilience, many communities around the world are adopting strategies of transition- from oil-dependent unsustainability to something more, well, resilient.

Some of this might trickle up to national and international institutions. Long term energy supply insecurity, coupled with climate change uncertainty make it very unlikely the world in even 20 years time will be much like it is now. But since we can’t really see into the future without getting it significantly wrong, it makes more sense to plan for multiple futures, and that means we need built-in redundancy to counterbalance over-brittle efficiency.

Two further contributions to this discussion:

First, scale is crucial – we need to recognise that at different scales different things are happening at different speeds. This means ‘one size fits all’ policies won’t work.

Second, there isn’t just one kind of ‘unthinkability’. According to grid-group cultural theory, there are actually four clear types of the unthinkable. Depending on their particular cultural bias, all institutions try to organise the world according to one of the following mutually incompatible claims:

  • ‘Long-term decline is unthinkable because recovery is just around the corner!’;

  • ‘Eternal growth is unthinkable because it’s all downhill from here!’;

  • ‘A break in continuity is unthinkable because experts project that it’s deja vu all over again!’;

  • ‘Plans and predictions are unthinkable because, win or lose, life’s one great lottery!’

Thinking the unthinkable means questioning the kinds of unthinkability we are prepared to entertain.

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